Phantom Thread is not a narrative picture in the traditional sense. It doesn’t play by rules of genre, or cliché, or even standard logic. No, Phantom Thread is an atmosphere: a thick, portent cinematic installation playing on all five of our senses at once. Paul Thomas Anderson and Jonny Greenwood envelop their audience in a woozy, smoke-filled dreamscape that removes all sense of time or place in the theatre to the extent of pure audio-visual intoxication.
It’s the 1950s. We know this because it looks and feels like the 1950s: there are no recognisable historical references, no expository dialogue, and no establishing on-screen text. Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) – the self-important, in-vogue fashion designer of the House of Woodcock – breaks his fast in a solemn, studious manner whilst casually instructing his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville) to get rid of his girlfriend. It’s clear this isn’t the first time.
Avoiding the emotional fallout of this ad-hoc break up, he takes his stunning sports car, overnight, to a cliffside hotel in Robin Hood Bay (again, unsignposted) to order just about the most magnificent breakfast cinema has ever seen. I’ve always maintained that Daniel Day Lewis is an overrated actor: overblown, excessively theatrical, and distractingly false. But here, he’s nothing short of a miracle. The way in which Woodcock reels off his order, the way in which he says ‘Welsh Rarebit’, tells us more about his character than we learn about, say, Winston Churchill in the whole of Darkest Hour.
Woodcock is outwardly upper-class, exhibiting slight-to-medium levels of camp, and speaking in a lilting, endlessly listenable English accent that belies inner turmoil. Throughout the two hours of Phantom Thread, we experience his love affair with Alma (Vicky Krieps) – a waitress in the hotel with the stellar breakfast. He takes her back to his native Fitzroy Square, and envelops her in rare, priceless fabrics; fetishizes her as a blank sensual canvas on which to craft his work; and ultimately objectifies her as a sort of living accessory. And so, Alma begins to fade from Woodcock’s life in much the same way as his previous loves: he claims he is cursed. We can see he is, instead, painfully self-absorbed.
And yet, Anderson seems to suggest, life and karmic currents work in balance. Alma is not like the other girls: as Woodcock begins to drift away from her in mind and body, her seductive power and subversive disruptions increase in intensity; dropping the anchor on Woodcock’s escape. Soon, we gradually realise, she has discovered the designer’s one true weakness, and begins to exploit it in the most unusual, thrilling, sinister, and strangely sensual ways imaginable.
An odd, spiritual fog of sinister disquiet begins to rise from plaster cracks in corners of otherwise pristine rooms. As Woodcock and Alma begin their psychological duelling, the lines between fantasy and reality begin to recede into the background. The dead hang over Phantom Thread like an inescapable, deeply melancholic truth: the aging designer’s mother having been a formative influence whose loss is felt every day. In one particular scene, as Woodcock suffers a toxic fever-dream, she stands motionless in the corner of his room, staring, for around five minutes. The effect is stupefyingly sinister, but mostly profoundly sad: a meditation on love and irreversible loss. In other moments, we find out that Woodcock hides secret messages and objects under the linings of his garments; or delve into the mythos of foraging.
This sense of fairy-tale unease also comes from the way Phantom Thread is shot: Anderson positions his camera at unnatural head-on angles on Woodcock’s car, focusing on his personal bubble as he whistles symmetrically through darkened, dangerous treelines. When outside of the nicotine-clouded London of the shop, unsignposted and ghostly-deserted English landscapes (the dramatic seaside of Robin Hood Bay; quiet, rustling forests; and secluded, cosy stone cottages) feel grand and isolated: cold, yet strangely warm and comforting. To watch this film is to give into a mythical aura of the mysterious – floating along on sensations of the uncanny: to submit oneself, absolutely, to nature and emotion.
Anderson’s use of 35mm is a devastating blow to the digital form. The stripping away of digital’s sheen, and the reinstating of a certain other type of cinematic illusion (it’s hard to explain how analogue film can feel both so much more realistic, and yet so much more cinematic, than modern digital filmmaking) brings the film into the theatre. The depth, texture, and awe-inspiring presence of some of these shots – see, for instance, the aforementioned breakfast scene in which Reynolds sits, overlooking cliffs and seaside whilst eating – is enough to take our breath away. It is, in perhaps more empirical terms, total sensory overdrive: we can feel the cool wind on our face, and smell the salt hanging in the sea air. There’s the sudden spinal shiver and gradual warmth of coming inside from the jarring cold. And, surrounding us are the smells of vacuumed carpet, industry-use air freshener, and a scent of breakfast cocktail: dark coffee, sunny orange juice, fragrant tomatoes and meaty bacon. The dark spice of black pudding lingers, for a moment, in the air. The indescribable sensation of being there, in that exact moment, is something truly remarkable.
And, whilst this idiosyncratic, deeply odd drama drifts through its narrative, Jonny Greenwood’s score provides a constant, heightened aural landscape of baroque elegance – with an opulent touch of menace. At times, it feels almost as if Anderson was shooting for a silent-movie aesthetic: all sumptuous imagery and rich, full classical music that complements the visuals and plot like the most developed, luxurious white wine could complement oysters.
And, thus, what we’re left with is something with too much of a spiritual presence to pertain to typical cinematic description. Paul Thomas Anderson reminds us, once again, how to make a perfect film. A beautiful, unique story; a flawless, dynamic cast; a rich, portent strain of thematic heft; a cinematography so lush it makes you gasp; and a deep, luxurious score combine to create an unparalleled sensory experience. I don’t know how to fully describe it, but when I think about Phantom Thread, I can taste it – I think that means something.
Featured image: The Guardian.